The Spy who knew Danger
If you loved Casino Royal and thought this hard-edged yet flippant character – without the tongue-in-cheek that usually accompanies a 007 film – is exactly what the spy genre needs, go back to the beginning.
Before Sean Connery became James Bond in 1962, Patrick McGoohan was finding danger as John Drake as early as 1960. No, he wasn’t the first in the spy genre (that tradition goes back farther than the Scarlet Pimpernel), nor did he popularize it (that was Ian Fleming’s job), but he was one of the coolest to covertly defend the free world this side of Golgo 13.
While Bond was softened in the transition from page to screen and turned into commercialized music video over the years, Drake transitioned from hardened sleuth to a tougher and more focused secret agent. That isn’t to say Drake is better than Bond—make no mistake, he was birthed in 007’s image—but he exudes that suave British attitude that makes you believe a 30-year-old government official could blend in with swinging teens, that transistor-based gadgets can do anything, and that cigarettes are not only cool, they’re mandatory.
Danger Man, better known as the “Secret Agent” to US viewers, had his own show from 1960 to 1966 and every episode can be found on the Complete Collection from A&E home video, further cementing the channel’s love affair with classic British programming.
Even if Drake’s adventures might seem unknown to modern audiences, everyone, and I mean everyone has heard at least something of him. Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man. It’s been played again and again in countless movies and regularly on oldies radio stations. Don’t act surprised, you know the opening lyrics (even if some think the song’s about a “Secret Asian Man”):
There’s a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes another chance he takes
Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow
The iconic song so familiar to generations of Americans is included as a bonus feature and accompanies some of the menu animations.
Episodes themselves range from realistic assassinations and counterintelligence to full-blown supervillains complete with uniformed henchmen and cleverly disguised secret lairs. The wide range is largely due to the rising popularity of Bond over the course of the series’ run. As Bond gained more gadgets, saw more pretty girls, and got into more fistfights, so did Drake. Like Bond, he’s popular enough with the ladies, but Drake isn’t one to get distracted by a skirt. He also has a sense of humor, but he reserves it for when it suits his cover, never letting it out when decorum is called for. Series creator Ralph Smart knew what he was doing when he helped shape the mystery and intrigue surrounding this seminal spy.
In each adventure, Drake must use his wits to find a way to route out his enemies. Sometimes this is nothing more than overpowering a strongman or wrestling a gun from a sharpshooter, but more often than not it means going deep undercover as a swinging disc jockey, a savvy technician, or an unassuming salesman. The series doesn’t have the same ‘60s vibe of Mission: Impossible, but it does capture the optimism of the era after the Red Scare of the ‘50s and before the gritty reality of the Vietnam War set in.
Series star McGoohan shines as the ever-pliable Drake. He doesn’t go into the physical transformations like the Impossible Force, but he is much more convincing in his assumed identities than Bond ever was. In the aforementioned disc jockey episode, Drake goes from stoic agent to a rebellious radio host obsessed with youth culture.
There’s just something about fist-fights in the ‘60s. They were so much more impressive then, with arching backs, flying movements, and lunges that could carry a man 10 feet through the air. Whether it’s James Kirk or John Drake, there’s a style to these bouts that just can’t be matched by the gunfights and explosions of modern drama.
That said, it’s not always a good thing for a series to show its age. Some scenes are extremely clichéd. In one episode a chief inspector stands with his hands held high on his lapels while a man with an oversized magnifying glass looks at a powdered finger print. Such dated, somewhat hokey scenes are rare throughout the show’s run.
In the show’s two color episodes, both based in Japan, there are anarchistic racial representations (a white actor portrays a wise old Japanese man, for example) and apparent misinterpretations of popular culture (evil organizations dress in white karate uniforms and black belts). Of course, politically correct hindsight is 20/20, and in the show’s defense, there’s a mix of real Japanese culture, like tea ceremonies and kabuki theater, and non-stereotypical roles for Asian actors. These episodes straddle the line between showing respectable and competent Japanese agents to depicting the Japanese as foolish, superstitious people. Ironically, one British character scoffs when a suggestion is made about selling electronic components in Japan. Little did they realize, in a few short years that wouldn’t seem so funny.
The DVD collection itself is fairly concise. All 86 episodes, ranging from early 30-minute black-and-white affairs to the hour-long color adventures, are included, but the US$149.95 price may keep all but the most devoted fans away. A&E does offer the series in separate season collections for more affordable prices, and for some reason I can’t fathom, a Megaset with apparently the same material for US$189.95. The more expensive collection was released a few years earlier, and although I haven’t seen it, is not advertised with any features not included on the Complete Collection.
The bonus features are not exceptional in and of themselves. The series is presented in its British format, so the often missung theme song so well known to Americans is relegated to bonus features, along with some simple but effective text information on the series and McGoohan, who went on to make the well-remembered series The Prisoner with many of the same filmmakers. These features are repeated on disc after disc, which is a shame, because for the price so much more could have been done.
With or without a lot of extras, the show speaks for itself. The series stands up to the test of time. Even with shows like 24 and CSI eating up the airwaves, modern audiences could enjoy the powerful techniques and hard-boiled action of Danger Man.